Arts: The man who gave the British sitcom its finest hour `If I may be a bit pompous, we made people laugh'

Click to follow
Jimmy Perry once penned comedy classics like `Dad's Army' and `Hi-de-Hi!'. But he isn't writing for TV now. Why? Because times have changed, he says. It comes as quite a shock to learn that, even back in the 1960s, the BBC was in thrall to those dreaded persons with clipboards, market researchers. Even more worrying is the news that perhaps our best-loved sitcom was almost strangled at birth by them.

Jimmy Perry, the co-writer (with David Croft) of Dad's Army, the long- running Home Guard saga, recalls that the Beeb was initially quite nervous about the show, fearing that it might mock Britain's proudest moment. He takes up the story. "They did audience research on it before it went out. They showed the first episode to audiences for three whole days, and 99 per cent of people loathed it. They said, `That bald-headed old man [Captain Mainwaring] doesn't even know his lines'."

Fortunately, the BBC chose to ignore the research and put the programme out anyway. Eighty episodes, a feature film and 20 years later, Dad's Army is recognised as the archetypal ensemble sitcom, the greatest example of a British team comedy. It is still regularly repeated on primetime BBC1, capturing new generations of fans with every screening.

Perry, a very well-preserved 72-year-old with a fine mane of swept-back hair and sparkly eyes, is rather more modest in his assessments. A charming, man with manners from a bygone era, he sits in his immaculate study in central London surrounded by memorabilia from Dad's Army and his many other television hits - It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, Hi-de-Hi! and You Rang M'Lord? among them. A signed photograph of the Dad's Army cast and crew hangs above the mantelpiece.

Beautifully attired in a blue blazer, with a pink striped shirt and white tie, offset by crimson tartan trousers, Perry sips from a cup of tea and reflects on the lasting popularity of a sitcom set long before many of its fans were even born. "Dad's Army is not gag comedy," he reckons, "it purely springs from situation and character. In so many sitcoms now, three people just sit at a kitchen-table and bang on. In Dad's Army, the characters are three-dimensional and it really happened." The 16-year- old Perry was famously the role-model for the naive young Guardsman, Pike, while Croft had also served in the Home Guard.

Comedians of a younger vintage, queuing up to pay tribute to the grandfather of all sitcoms, also agree that its strengths are character-based. In his foreword to a new book entitled, Dad's Army: A Celebration, Michael Palin comments that the programme "contained within it so many truths about human behaviour that all of us could see something of someone we knew in each episode. It was never a vehicle for a wisecracking star. It did not strain to bludgeon or dazzle with its humour." Ben Elton, once the standard-bearer of cutting-edge alternative comedy, has also enthused about the old-fashioned virtues of Perry and Croft's work: "The glory of it is that it is always ensemble. There's a glorious collection of characters, and the genius in the writing is that they scarcely need a line to establish themselves."

But, Perry ventures, there is more to the show's appeal than acute characterisation. "If I may be a bit pompous, we made people laugh - and that's a great thing - but David and I also drew attention to Britain's finest hour. We had our backs to the wall, and it was kill or be killed. The British people had never before had to face up to such a dramatic situation. We faced down a terrible tyranny. I get terribly upset with people born 20 years after the war who make documentaries saying how it nearly went wrong. It didn't bloody go wrong, and we bloody won the war."

Perry is generous about today's sitcoms - he loves Absolutely Fabulous, Men Behaving Badly and One Foot in the Grave - and denies that Dad's Army was part of a mythical gilded age for television comedy. "You always have ups and downs," he muses. "There never was a golden era. Believe me, 30 years ago there was some real rubbish going out."

All the same, he can't help feeling out of touch with much of modern television. He readily admits that his easy-going style of humour is unfashionable with the young Turks who run the networks these days. "I don't think my type of writing is watched any more," he sighs. "There's a certain hardness and ruthlessness about today's humour. There's not a lot of love. The world's a tougher place now, and my type of writing is just too gentle."

That said, some of Perry's work has lately fallen foul of the PC police. White actors blacking up to play Indians and soldiers abusing each other as "poofs" just won't wash in the Nineties. "People used to call It Ain't Half Hot, Mum racist and politically incorrect," he recalls, "but what they didn't know is that those were the attitudes people had during the war."

He will again be mining a rich seam of nostalgia with That's Showbiz!, a musical he has co-written (with Roy Moore) that charts the rise of a mediocre comic from the low-rent touring revues of the 1920s to the heady days of the burgeoning television industry of the 1950s. The show, which stars a full tank-load of battle-hardened old troupers in Ted Rogers (3- 2-1), Carmen Silvera ('Allo, 'Allo), Su Pollard (Hi-de-Hi!) and Peter Baldwin (Coronation Street), points up the gap between art and life. "Why can't life be more like showbiz?" Perry wonders. "Why are there only newspapers called The Bugle in films? And why don't taxi-drivers in real life say to you, `God bless you, guv'nor, you're a toff'?"

That's Showbiz! also throws the spotlight on the unforgiving nature of fame. "It's about a second-rate feed who ends up hanging himself in his dressing-room," reveals Perry, himself a former performer and self-confessed ham, and no stranger to the B-list, holiday-camp circuit - experiences that metamorphosed into Hi-de-Hi!. (He originally wrote Dad's Army so he could be guaranteed a television part - as the spiv, Walker.) "I realise after 47 years in the business what a lucky sod I have been. I don't see myself as a writer. I'm just a turn that got lucky."

A man who could, if he wanted to, make self-deprecation an Olympic event, Perry continues: "With Dad's Army, I just wrote down what I remembered. Perhaps I've got a good memory. But experience is so important. To write comedy, you have to have lived. Look at David Croft, Johnny Speight and Galton & Simpson - they're all quite old. You have got to take it from first-hand experience. If you've only been to university, what have you experienced? All you've done is drink, chase girls and tap your parents for money."

For all that, Perry doesn't feel he can bring himself to pen another piece for the screen, big or small. "To write a film today, you don't only have to be a writer, you also have to be an explosives expert," he laughs. "As for television, I get the feeling that I'd have to fight too hard now. With David Croft, we had total freedom. Now I'd have to have arguments with executives, and quite frankly, at my age, I haven't got the puff to have to justify everything.

"I find writing a bit of a fag, don't you?" he concludes. "Have you seen Forrest Gump? I love that bit when he says, `That's all I gotta say about that.' I feel the same."

`Dad's Army, a Celebration' is published this week by Virgin (pounds 14.99). `That's Showbiz!' is at the Wimbledon Theatre, London, SW19 (booking: 0181-540 0362) from 3 to 8 Nov. `Dad's Army' is screened on UK Gold on Mon 6 Oct